Sleep problems still remain a persistent problem in our society, with much of the western world experiencing epidemics of insomnia and sleep disturbances.
In 2015, a study conducted by Public Health England, found that diet was the biggest factor driving poor health, ranking ahead of smoking!2 While most us will be familiar with some of the side effects of poor diet, such as indigestion, obesity and cardiovascular disease, the wrong eating habits can also have a distinct impact on our sleep, exacerbating issues such as insomnia and sleep apnea.
It’s also true, though, that our quality of sleep can affect what we eat, with sleep deprivation often leading to an increase in our cravings for sugary, carb-heavy foods, creating a vicious cycle that can be difficult to escape.
However, there are steps you can take to ensure that you are eating the right foods to promote a good night’s sleep and avoiding those that may upset or disrupt your sleep patterns. That’s why today I’m going to take a look at the foods you should be eating, the ones you should be avoiding and the habits that might ensure a better, more restful night’s sleep.
Tart cherry juice
Although technically not a food product, there is some research to substantiate tart cherry juice as a good option for promoting healthy sleep. Published in the Journal of Medicinal Food, a small study did find that cherry juice did improve sleep efficiency and insomnia severity, however, further research is still needed.3
Nevertheless, tart cherry juice is a rich source of potassium and iron, as well as anti-inflammatory anthocyanins. Just be careful to choose a reliable brand that’s free of added sugars and preservatives.
You were probably told to eat all your greens as a child and for good reason. Leafy green vegetables such as kale, broccoli and spinach are crammed full of goodness, including mood-boosting magnesium which can help with converting tryptophan, an essential amino acid, into serotonin as well as regulating your production of melatonin, the sleep hormone.
Spinach and broccoli also contain vitamin B6 and calcium which can help to support your nervous system and affect how tryptophan is utilised by your body. In some cases, low levels of vitamin B6 have even been linked to insomnia so I would definitely make sure you’re working a good portion of veg into your diet.
Oily fish such as salmon, mackerel and sardines provide an incredible range of omega-3 fatty acids and amino acids, particularly tryptophan, a mood regulator which can help to relax and calm your body in preparation of sleep. Studies have also indicated that omega-3 fatty acids could be very useful for sleep, helping with brain development and blood pressure.
Some sources of oily fish also provide rich amounts of vitamin D, so it’s always worth working at least one portion of oily fish into one of your meals each week.
When you think of bananas, the chances are your mind immediately zones in on their potassium content, which may cause you to overlook some of this fruit’s other benefits. Bananas provide a good source of vitamin B6, magnesium and tryptophan, as well as melatonin, the sleep hormone.
This means that snacking on a banana may help to increase your production of melatonin, helping you feel more relaxed and lethargic before you go to bed. One small study found that eating bananas did cause blood levels of melatonin to rise two hours later.4
When it comes to foods that might be interrupting your sleep patterns, the odds are that you already know which products to look out for. Nevertheless, the below I covered a few of the main culprits as well as some surprising foods products that they often crop up in!
It’s not exactly a secret that caffeine will impede your sleep patterns – that’s why so many of us turn to it first thing in the morning, downing cups of tea and coffee to prepare us for the day ahead. However, while you may be aware of its detrimental impact on your sleep patterns, you might not realise just how long it can linger in your system. For example, if you have your last cup of coffee at 4pm in the afternoon, you probably feel pretty confident that it won’t disturb your sleep at all.
However, while most authorities state that caffeine should be out of your system within 3-5 hours, this can be misleading. This is how long it takes for your body to eliminate half of the substance – the remaining half can linger in your body for much, much longer5, particularly if you’re on the Pill. This is because the Pill is thought to reduce the speed at which your body can eliminate caffeine, causing it to linger in your system for an extra four hours!6
It’s not just your cups of tea and coffee that are saturated with caffeine though – everything from protein bars to yoghurts to certain medication can contain the substance so it’s always worth checking the label thoroughly!
Fats have earned an unfortunate reputation as far as the media is concerned, particularly at this time of year when low fat diets are all the rage. Healthy fats are actually very good for you, being rich in omega fatty acids and healthy cholesterol.
Nevertheless, the bad fats that are usually found in processed foods still remain a big no-no. These types of fats can affect your waistline, leading to problems such as obesity which can make you more vulnerable to sleep issues such as sleep apnoea.
Processed foods are often rich in refined carbohydrates too which can be converted into sugar, raising your blood glucose levels which can have a knock-on effect on your sleep patterns.
Sugar is bad for you – this is hardly a ground-breaking observation. It can cause your blood sugar levels to spike and disrupt your sleep patterns at night. However, the tricky thing is that sleep deprivation can also inspire sugar cravings so it can feel like a vicious cycle. I would urge you to resist those cravings though and instead focus on healthier substitutes such as dried fruit, nuts or homemade energy balls!
It’s also important to be mindful that sugar can appear in places you wouldn’t usually expect it to. Yoghurts, brunch bars, cereals and even flavoured water may all contain sugar and artificial sweeteners so always check the label!
There’s no harm in having the odd glass of wine now and then but, as I explored in my article ‘Does alcohol really help you sleep’ alcohol should definitely not be used as a sleep aid. When you start to rely on a glass of wine in the evening to help you relax, this should sound alarm bells.
Alcohol may make you feel calm and drowsy, but it also delays REM sleep and can lead to disturbed sleep during the night as well as long-term insomnia. Try to avoid regularly consuming alcohol before bedtime and focus on healthier alternatives instead, such as herbal tea or good old-fashioned plain water!
A sleep diary is a record of an individual's sleeping and waking times with related information, usually over a period of several weeks.
In addition to being a useful tool for health care practitioners in the diagnosis of sleep problems, a sleep diary can help make individuals more aware of the parameters affecting their sleep.
This data alone can help people pin point factors favouring good sleep.
Click here to download your FREE sleep diary